Saturday, November 17, 2018

I've Got a Feeling Jeff Flake will change his mind again before he retires

Indiana University production of "Hansel and Gretel" appeals to all ages in Clowes Hall performance

The challenge to innocence is a big driver of folktales, so think of the potential resonance now when exaggerated fears of childhood dangers have influenced parenting as never before.

That means "Hansel and Gretel," an old German story given to world literature by the Brothers Grimm, loses some of its quaintness whenever a production of the Engelbert Humperdinck opera takes the stage nowadays.

It's doing so this weekend — the second of two performances is this afternoon —in a show trucked in from Bloomington, where the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater mounted an updated production of "Hansel and Gretel" and debuted it at home just before Election Day.
Brother and sister apprehensively face a night in the dark woods.

Double-cast from the Jacobs School's wealth of sturdy young voices and conducted by Arthur Fagen, Friday's performance in Clowes Hall displayed the sureness of Opera Theater's customarily high production values and detailed acting-singing. What follows covers the cast of the Nov. 2 premiere; at today's matinee, all roles will be occupied by different students.

The opera is heavily orchestrated and uses some aspects of Richard Wagner's complex style in a way that's readily intelligible but slightly surprising as applied to such a simple story: Peasant siblings misbehave, are sent into the forest to fetch food, lose their way, go to sleep, wake up near a gingerbread cottage and are captured by a child-eating witch, who at length receives her comeuppance. The children are found by their anxious parents amid general rejoicing, supplemented by some of the crone's suddenly liberated larder of baked but uneaten victims.

Eleni Taluzek (Hansel) and Jennie Moser (Gretel) made the title characters the emotionally co-dependent if squabbling brother and sister to which Humperdinck gave lots of music in flowing arioso style. A major exception is the charming number in which Gretel teaches a dance to Hansel, and of course the imperishable Evening Prayer. Throughout the show, the two sopranos conveyed in voice, gesture, and movement the siblings'  juvenile energy, naughtiness, fearfulness, and eventually triumphant daring. Their Mother's first-act lament for her sorry lot is accompanied with Wagnerian pathos.

Sung in English with supertitles above the stage, the production never allows for a moment's confusion or obscurity for an audience of all ages. The rhymed couplets in Cori Ellison's translation are clever, but a bit stilted when the dialogue is serious. In the third act, the punning about the Witch's preferred diet is well-suited to the translation's near-doggerel.

Darian Clounts as the Witch showed flair at least as funny as it was scary.
The Witch, played with comical flair by Darian Clonts Friday, gets a lot of the best lines. The only problem is that the rollicking verse makes the Witch more amusing than stage director Michael Sell seems to have intended (according to my interview with him). Costuming and staging of the Witch's fraught interaction with the kids were marvelously detailed, but it's unlikely any younger audience members had even a momentary scare.

The Evening Prayer and Dream Pantomime, a high point of the show both musically and theatrically, were wonderfully realized through Thomas C. Hase's lighting design. The immortal work on sets and costume design by Max Rothlisberger (who died in 2003) has been supplemented in the costume area by Mark Frederic Smith and Dana Tzvetkov.

Brother and sister are charmed by mysterious dancers at night.
The whole team, with choreography for six sylph-like dancers by Christian Claessens completing the enchantment, is responsible for the magical second-act climax. In the third act, there is more magic to come, much of it pyrotechnical, before all the children and  Hansel and Gretel's parents join in a chorus of pious gratitude, swelled by the adept orchestra.

This cast has Geuna Kim as the Dew Fairy and Mandeline Coffey as the Sandman, attending briefly on the lost children with melodious reassurances in Act 2. The parents — Father heartily celebrating his good fortune in town at first, Mother fretful and scolding — were sung in well-projected fashion by Jeremiah Sanders and Hayley Lipke.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Danish String Quartet returns amid lots of buzz from last year's Ensemble Music appearance

To deal with the novelty first: Hans Abrahamsen's String Quartet No. 1 ("Ten Preludes") gave the evening's best indication that even when the Danish String Quartet is presented with a miscellany of demands for the four players, they remain unfailingly a unit.
The Danish Quartet, solidly unified in performance, indulges its individualism here.

The group appeared again Wednesday in the Ensemble Music Society series at the Indiana History Center, 13 months after they made a sensational local debut.

EMS President John Failey noted from the stage how unusual it is for this presenter to invite an ensemble back so soon. But the wisdom of the decision was evident in the difficulty of finding any of the Basile Theater's 290 seats empty as the concert started.

As for the work by the Danish composer Abrahamsen (b. 1952), it consists of a series of short pieces promising development of some sort but never allowing it to take place. The idioms mastered in the course of the work extend across the variety of writing for two violins, viola, and cello. Though the players seemed to be pulled in different directions, they sounded comfortable as a team throughout.

In "Ten Preludes," there are buzzing tremolos, skittering gestures suggesting mice in the woodwork, striking unison declarations, unsteady exchanges of syncopated passages, and a final prelude of hymnlike solace that suggests all's right with the world. I heard fleeting stylistic allusions to the Second Viennese School (chiefly Arnold Schoenberg), to the "night music" of Bela Bartok, and to the kind of across-the-board digging in we find in Shostakovich's string quartets. Resolution of mood and harmony was almost always suspended.

So, when it came to opening and closing the program out of the First Viennese School (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), the unified presentation of the DSQ rested upon a foundation most congenial to showing that it is indeed "indivisible by four" (to borrow the title of Arnold Steinhardt's memoir of the Guarneri Quartet).

The unity that violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin typically display is the product of coordination through time and tone alike. The cellist plays like a violinist, in the sense that his bow control is capable of the delicacy and near weightlessness of his violin colleagues; the middle voice of the viola stays thoroughly in the same spirit. In Haydn's String Quartet in C major, op. 20, no.2, which opened the concert, you never got the sense that in every breast there was a soloist ready to burst out. No individual voice stuck out, whatever the temporary prominence of its material. Every fluctuation of tempo, as in the third-movement minuet, was unanimously executed.

After intermission came one of those middle-period Beethoven pieces that represent the ingenious bridge he laid down between the past and the future of his art. His Quartet no. 7 in F major, op. 59, no. 1, opens with what is inevitably called a square melody in the cello which is then treated to startling contrasts as well as reaffirmations. In every respect, especially in the delightful second movement, you had the illusion of hearing one instrument play the music even while looking at four of them hard at work.

The slow movement can try a listener's patience. It really sinks into its somber mood — one of the cases where a composer's life experiences at the time seem to have influenced what emerged from his pen. The Adagio is certainly overstated in how it handles two themes at length, twinned in sadness. Another example better known to the general public is the third movement of the Ninth Symphony. In both cases, their effectiveness is something we feel partly in retrospect after the finale gets under way; when we're in the midst of it, we can hardly keep from looking for the exits.

In the symphony, the initial statement famously doesn't offer any relief at first; in the case of the quartet, the lifting of spirits is immediate. There's a wonderful transition to it as well, which the DSQ managed superbly. The borrowed Russian theme then gets the ultimate of Beethoven's virtuosity, and the players were up to the task. The performance Wednesday made it a special treat to experience the music's complete banishment of dark clouds. The reigning zest prepared us for the serenity of a Carl Nielsen song that the ensemble offered as an encore.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Ronen Chamber Ensemble's season-long 'sister cities' theme visits Piran and native son Tartini

With two outright masterpieces shoring up the program, the Ronen Chamber Ensemble held on to its celebration of Indianapolis' Sister Cities with a salute to Giuseppe Tartini, a native of Piran, Slovenia (known as Pirano when it was part of the Venetian empire of his day (1692-1770)).

The Concertino for Clarinet and Piano is Gordon Jacob's arrangement drawn from a couple of Tartini violin sonatas. It was played with the zest of a well-prepared appetizer to main courses of Mozart and Beethoven on Tuesday night at Indiana Landmarks Center.

The slow-fast-slow-fast layout of the work made for satisfying contrasts of textures and tempos for the duo of David Bellman and Gregory Martin. The clarinetist's passagework was unfailingly smooth and even in the Allegro molto; in the other fast movement, a sometimes brutally rapid finale, the difficulty for the clarinet to match the notes-per-second capability of the violin occasionally became evident.

Zachary DePue, Gregory Martin, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman
Pianist Martin, often the workhorse of recent Ronen programs, was back in a more challenging role for Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat, op. 97, ("Archduke"). He was joined by violinist Zachary DePue and cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, Ronen co-founder. The coordinated "singing" tone all three players produced in the Andante cantabile was a high point, though the pace lagged here and there into what felt like "adagio."

The second-movement Scherzo was lent some appropriate notes of mystery and suspense. In the finale, however, there was suspense at a couple of points that didn't strike me as germane. Holds (or fermatas) at transition points aren't meant to imply a brief rest before the next phrase, yet twice — at the initial Presto and then where the tempo picks up to piu presto (faster)— this trio inserted a pause. It may have been a deliberate interpretive choice, but to me authentic Beethoven excitement is the suddenness with which he changes or intensifies the mood (sometimes by one accented chord). There was a note of staidness about the finale that could have been at least partially wiped away by going "bang!" into those Presto passages. Indeed, the whole performance could have used more sparkle.

The highlight of the concert occupied the entire second half. Though the omission of Mozart's name
The ensemble acknowledges applause for its Mozart performance.
from the printed program was never explained, it was indeed his Serenade in C minor for wind octet, K.388, that brought onstage eight accomplished wind instrumentalists for a brightly engaging performance of the four-movement work.

With the main voice being the first oboe's, it was fun to hear Jennifer Christen in performance again during a time when she's been on maternity leave from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where she is principal oboist. Joining her were Bellman and Samuel Rothstein, clarinets; Crystal Barrett, second oboe; Mike Muszynski and Kelly Swensson, bassoons, and Robert Danforth and Julie Beckel Yager, horns.

The vigor and attractiveness of the composition's themes and its tightly organized blend of high-profile melody and sweetly balanced accompaniment were firmly in place. The piece becomes especially winning with the emphasis on counterpoint in the canonic minuet-and-trio movement; variety of texture also comes to the fore there, which was brilliantly outlined by the ensemble. In the fast-paced finale, only some brief slips in coordination in the main theme's return detracted from the ensemble's excellent account of the work, which deserved to be credited in print to the apparently forgotten genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Monday, November 12, 2018

When the rain comes, our president needs to stay indoors and let others celebrate First World War sacrifices

For 'The Mutilated,' NoExit Performance finds itself at home in the Propylaeum Carriage House

Not as bloody-minded as the title might have you thinking, "The Mutilated" is one of Tennessee Williams' explorations of the challenges life keeps posing to wholeness and healing among the largely self-wounded. The wounds go deep, but are more felt than seen.

Williams was never one to soft-pedal his development of a theme, and the title of this 1966 drama serves to direct our attention to the secrets, hurts and shame of its main characters, who bring up their mutilation often. It's a cat fight in which both protagonists seem to have lost several of their nine flea-bitten lives.
Venting in the park: Trinket Dugan tries to exorcise her demons.

Female bonding is probably more durable than the kind men practice. Male friends would walk away from each other for good if they got on each other's nerves the way Trinket Dugan and Celeste Delacroix Griffin do in "The Mutilated." But the boil infecting their old friendship is lanced finally by a miracle; it's heralded in a song that the supporting cast gathers several times to sing like a "Threepenny Opera" anthem. It's Christmas Eve, and the holiday's mixed messages finally tilt toward the sacred one.

Ryan Mullins, artistic director of NoExit Performance, deftly directs that slice of humanity surrounding co-stars Gigi Jennewein and Beverly Roche as the flawed and flailing friends in a seedy part of  "the Quarter" in New Orleans, a city that haunts the Williams oeuvre. The Carriage House at the Propylaeum is the site for the peripatetic NoExit Performance to stage "The Mutilated."

There's nothing seedy about that place, but the presence of a balcony around two sides of the room evokes a prominent architectural feature of old New Orleans, even if it's used here mostly for interior scenes and not lacy ironwork on the outside. The slipshod attempts of Trinket and Celeste to decorate their lives and hide their mutilations are nicely suggested by their attire and by the set's furniture and a number of smaller props — a blend of deliberate reinforcements and haphazard acquisitions. Kipp Normand seems not to have missed a thing in his design.
Beverly Roche and Gigi Jennewein play two friends on the outs.

Jennewein's scene alone, as the faux-genteel Trinket shrieks her determination to shed an identity as "Agnes Jones," a kind of professional pseudonym she shares with Celeste, captured the blend of comedy and pathos that "The Mutilated" is rich in. I enjoyed the large-scale ranting she drew upon, suitable to the role as a cover for Trinket's guarded vulnerability at the margins. The portrayal was complemented by the more rambunctious injured energy of Beverly Roche's Celeste, freshly sprung from the hoosegow and open in her loutishness and amorality. There was no let-up or let-down in the sparks that flew between them in the show Sunday evening (it runs through Nov. 18).

Both Trinket and Celeste strive, often ineptly, to assert how much more they deserve than what they've been  given. Williams works, sometimes too obviously, to allow us to locate a basis of decency in people struggling for respectability without being certain they deserve it, and who tend to undercut their own efforts. The drama lies in their hunger for it. That appetite is faithfully presented in this show, whose touches of garishness and overstatement fall well within the Williams norm.

Matthew Walls and Mark Cashwell make for a believably roughneck pair of sailors on illegitimate shore leave, complicating the women's lives. Zachariah Stonerock plays the phlegmatic desk clerk at the hotel where the two women have been longtime residents, trying to shrug off their mutual hostility. A rogues' gallery of minor roles is capably filled by Doug Powers, Dan Flahive, Abby Gilster and Elysia Rohn, who also constitute a vocally fit chorus singing occasional commentary to a tune by Ben Asaykwee.

[Photos by Daniel Axler]

Stage director of the opera "Hansel and Gretel" has vision of both realism and mystery

The happy ending of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel"
The outlines of the German folk tale about what can happen to curious, naughty kids when they wander off into the woods are well-known.

The Engelbert Humperdinck opera is less familiar, and the composer's name to many brings up a late- 20th-century pop singer rather than a German composer (1854-1921). "Hansel and Gretel" (to use its English title, since it will be performed here in English) comes to Clowes Hall this weekend in an Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater production.

Michael Shell brings an extensive resume to IU.
The lost children's "evening prayer" is a familiar tune — its greatest hit — in an opera mostly credited with being an extension of the innovations that Richard Wagner brought to the genre. Use of short melodic bits called "motives" (or "motifs," after the German word Leitmotif) tie the music to the action in a way that "number opera" structure, with its clearly distinguishable recitatives and arias, can't manage. The orchestral texture is thick and flowing.

From a stage director's perspective, "number operas are more challenging," said Michael Shell in a
phone interview last week, between the production's premiere in Bloomington and its transfer to Indianapolis for performances Friday and Saturday. In contrast, "this is never vocal calisthenics for showing off the voice. You can tell a very economical story when the music just keeps going. Ultimately that's better storytelling."

Shell just joined the faculty of IU's Jacobs School of Music this fall, specializing in opera and musical theater. With "Hansel and Gretel," he inherits a production that first saw life on campus in 1982. He and the production team have made a few changes, some technical, some aesthetic.

"What we did this time was on a fairytale-esque scale," he explained, alluding its source in the Brothers Grimm classic. "Prior productions were not looking at the grittiness; the whole family is pretty poor. They had been pristine-perfect in their clothing. There's a little bit more realism, in a way." He also rejected making the Witch the "broad comic character" of some versions, where "you weren't really scared of the Witch, and it seems kind of cruel for Hansel and Gretel to kill her."

Of course, Shell can't go all the way in the direction of realism, for the story is rife with the supernatural and the fantastic. There are the nocturnal visits to the weary siblings by the Dew Fairy and the Sandman, who are conceived in gender-ambiguous terms here. And, he said, there's no stinting of the show's climax: the explosion of the Witch's oven and the liberation of her prior victims from their gingerbread transformation: "As much as we can do, we have the explosion and lots of fireworks, then a very sweet kind of whimsical way in which the gingerbread children appear."

Shell singled out from his collaboration the meeting of minds he had early in the process with lighting designer Thomas C. Hase. "I wanted to create an atmosphere of mystery, where you discover a lot of different things," Shell said, and Hase's lighting ideas were "exactly in line with what I was hoping for....It's all in the story: innocence and foreboding. It's a natural thing to balance that."

The fashion of using an opera's overture or prelude to present a stage picture mimicking the action to come did not appeal to Shell. "The set does not allow for that," he said, and "it's better for the audience to sit there and let that time pass. It's a gorgeous score, and I didn't feel the need to put something on view."

He preferred stronger visual impressions to be made once the opera gets under way, as in the Act 1 finale. That's when Hansel and Gretel are sent off to the woods on a chore and their parents realize they are in danger from the Witch who lures children into her cottage and bakes them. "We've done a few different things with that: There's a strong foreshadowing of what's going to happen, that there's a passageway into another realm....I tried to understand the opera the way it is."